Sexual abuse has morphed into a new monster in the age of coronavirus

Sexual assault is a life-destroyer that has taken on a new face amid the coronavirus pandemic

WITH THE advent of COVID-19, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel has seen a 30% rise in calls or visits to its local centers countrywide. (photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
WITH THE advent of COVID-19, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel has seen a 30% rise in calls or visits to its local centers countrywide.
(photo credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)
In October 2019 a large group of young men, aged 15 to 22, were arrested in Cyprus for the alleged gang rape of a British tourist during their vacation there. Nearly a year later in August, the nation was struck to the core when it had heard that a row of men had stood outside a teenage girl’s hotel room door, waiting in line to rape her, one at a time.
Young girls were terrified to leave their homes. Parents were horrified, imagining their children in such a state. Brothers and sisters and any other relation imagined the faces of those they love being abused as she had been. And yet, many cried out that the victims were lying – or even worse, that they were deserving.
The incidents in Cyprus and Eilat were one of many, and the coronavirus pandemic – even now amid the second wave – has only made the uphill battle against the rape epidemic that much more difficult to fight.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel (ARCCI) has seen a 30% rise on average in calls or visits to its local centers throughout the country. In addition, it has seen an 80% rise in inquiries via their WhatsApp-based messaging service and a 60% rise in inquiries through their online chat.
“The pandemic is like an amplifier of problems, but if you suffer from Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (c-PTSD) – which happens to many victims of sexual abuse – it is awfully similar to being shell-shocked,” ARCCI CEO Orit Solitsiano told the Magazine. “The suffering is so bad and the loneliness is huge and it leads to women hospitalizing themselves, waiting for free psychological treatment, which may have a year or more waiting list.”
Solitsiano further explained that the pandemic has led to a change in the manner in which sexual violence is being executed as people have become more secluded in their homes; more secluded, however, means more vulnerable to the threats posed to them there.
“Many times, many victims of sexual violence – especially those who were abused as a child – do not have a family,” she said. “Alternatively, the abuser may be in their home so they cannot live there. They may have worked in jobs that are not available, so if they were waitresses, for example, they now have no work.” “During the pandemic, the conditions are always the worst and the cases always more extreme,” stressed Jessica Nagid, a social worker in the Women’s International Zionist Organization (WIZO) youth projects department. “If there’s a community where the functionality was low as it is, the conditions worsened with coronavirus. Young women have left their houses due to abuse in these conditions, have become addicted to drugs and have allowed themselves to be sexually manipulated in exchange for essentials.” When a victim’s abuser is in their home and they have no excuse to leave and cannot escape, they may forced to stay in the house with their abuser. The limiting circumstances, meanwhile, may be triggering to victims with c-PTSD.
The outcome of sexual abuse could be catastrophic, and it oftentimes branches out and harms those closest to the victim, such as their children. “The children’s lives often get injured and they may get abused afterwards because of the victim’s traumatic response,” Solitsiano said.
YOUTH CLEARED from rape charges in Cyprus are surrounded by family as they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 28, 2019. (Flash90)YOUTH CLEARED from rape charges in Cyprus are surrounded by family as they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport on July 28, 2019. (Flash90)

THE SOCIAL distancing required amid COVID-19 has also led to drastic measures. “Social distancing makes them reach an extreme, looking for proximity and social comfort,” Nagid explained. “This allows them to be taken advantage of. Social media is what keeps them busy from day to day; but they find sexual harassment there, too.” The world wide web and apps offer an alternate platform for a less direct, although just as effective, form of sexual abuse. On one hand, young girls and women are pressured into sending sexually provocative/nude photographs through apps like Snapchat. In the best-case scenarios, these are considered healthy sexual interactions despite often being fed by social pressure; in worst-case scenarios, these photos are later used against the girls, either to manipulate or humiliate them by sharing them with others who were not privy to the previous messages and relationships. Such bullying can lead to serious harm – the trauma of ‘going viral’ among one’s peers and beyond can run deep.
On the other hand, the internet’s intense effect on a young audience is due to the exceedingly early exposure to pornographic content.
“Children these days are exposed to porn for the first time at a very young age, around eight or nine,” said Mia Biran, head of the ARCCI’s Jerusalem education department. “They need to be taught and discuss how sex really is and not how it is in porn, and so they may gain the wrong perspective from it. In porn, everyone is a sexual object and their sole purpose is sex. If someone is interacting with another person, it will inherently end in sex.
“They must be taught that there are other forms of interactions between people, which are not in porn – such as communication, gradation, the option of disliking things.”
“In pornography, there is no border between pleasure and pain,” she continued. “The sounds that in real life would be reflective of pain would be reflective of pleasure in porn.”
Yet sexual assault victims who seek guidance are not always met with the help they are seeking. Municipal social workers throughout the country are too understaffed to be taking on the various domestic and sexual abuse allegations that are now widespread, and so many victims are left blind in the face of bureaucratic issues that would free them of their abuser, assist them in coping with their post-trauma and so on.
“You cannot depend on the authorities in Israel today,” Solitsiano noted.
Help from hotlines, too, may oftentimes be difficult to reach when victims “do not have the privacy at home to call hotlines,” according to Biran. “We do have a crisis chat, which is more comfortable for many people. Chat is more discreet, especially if you think of youth that for a while now have not been in their usual frameworks and settings.”
THE RAPE Crisis Center rails against the government’s treatment of the issue. (Rape Crisis Center) THE RAPE Crisis Center rails against the government’s treatment of the issue. (Rape Crisis Center)
THE COMMITTEE for the Advancement of Women and Gender Equality in the Knesset, led by MK Oded Forer, has attempted to advance the movements to improve sexual education and treatment of victims’ cases. One such movement is to open additional acute medical units (AMUs), specialized hospital wings for acute medical conditions. These rooms are intended, among other things, to treat victims of rape.
“The subject of sexual assault is so broad,” Forer told the Magazine. “We must continue treating it at every point we can. We have recently managed to broaden the law against sexual harassment and made it apply to sports organizations and associations. They are now required to teach this to their trainers and managers, as well as the youth. I think this is very important in order to shrink the harm. The ground here is so filled with horrifying stories. It is an uphill battle.”
“If a young woman is brought to an AMU and has to wait for a few hours to be treated, we are only delaying the witness testimony and the process of healing,” warned Idit Gindi, manager of youth projects for WIZO, commending Forer on his work to both keep the new AMU in Eilat open and his efforts to obtain approval for the opening of five additional AMUs throughout Israel.
Nagid explained that Forer has, indeed, been pushing nonstop to get these policies passed through the Knesset. “He’s not letting go,” she said. “He’s in the committee each week. He speaks about why we need to have this dialogue for things to change.”
Amid the lockdown, organizations such as the ARCCI throughout the country have seen massive financial loss and were often on the brink of closure. Welfare Ministry funds are funneled to them, but that was supposed to be canceled in the pandemic’s first wave. After representatives from numerous institutions spoke with Labor, Welfare and Social Services Minister Itzik Shmuli, however, he canceled the budget cuts and even promised a budget raise.
“It’s November,” Solitsiano said. “Until now, only one-quarter of all of the money promised arrived at local centers. There’s no budget in Israel.”
Although no updated statistics have been released as of yet regarding changes in rape culture amid COVID-19, recent years have shown growing trends in which members of the haredi and Arab communities are particularly vulnerable. Overall, however, victims of sexual abuse can be seen in every sector of society.
Nevertheless, organizations across Israel have learned to cope with corona’s limitations by moving any instructional content they present to a virtual format, providing therapy and teaching proper discourse about sex via Zoom.
DEMONSTRATING IN Jerusalem in support of the 16-year-old victim of the Eilat gang rape. (Marc Israel Sellem) DEMONSTRATING IN Jerusalem in support of the 16-year-old victim of the Eilat gang rape. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Education on the subject itself is often critical. Kids oftentimes do not know how to recognize they are being sexually abused, and only when they are teenagers or young adults do they manage to understand the trauma they had experienced. Children are also staying home with their domestic and sexual abusers, without oversight by authority figures they used to see regularly such as their teachers – so there is no professional eye to inspect and perhaps notice if something is wrong.
“We usually get calls from children who grew up, around 17 years old, who call maybe 10 years after something happened to them, because they didn’t understand up until that point,” Solitsiano said. She additionally recommended that the country make it obligatory for teenagers to learn how to prevent sexual violence and how to promote healthy sexuality.
But Israel did not seem aware – or at least, did not seem awake – to the thought of rape having a normalized place in modern culture until the highly publicized gang-rape of the 16-year-old in Eilat in August.
“It shocked people,” Gindi said. “Men stood in line to rape a young woman. But rape happens every day.”
“Rape culture is not only in social media posts that are not politically correct or in the rape in Eilat,” Nagid noted. “The rape in Eilat shocked the nation, but it was not new. Rape is just one word among many things. It is good, in a way, that the Eilat rape opened a dialogue, but it is terrible when you see the opposite dialogue, the people who take it to the other end and say, ‘she deserved it,’ ‘why didn’t she say no,’ ‘what were her parents thinking?’ Indeed, following the Cyprus incident, the alleged rapists – adorned in white kippot – were greeted by relatives in Ben-Gurion Airport with cheers (“The Brit is a whore”), flags and champagne. They came home heroes, even as the results of the case were in dispute.
Concluded Nagid, “We have a social responsibility to change the discourse.”
The writer is a desk manager at The Jerusalem Post. She reports on welfare, namely domestic and sexual abuse.
– Women’s hotline for the Rape Crisis Center: 1202
– Men’s hotline for the Rape Crisis Center: 1203
– Religious women’s hotline (kosher): (02) 673-0002
– Religious men’s hotline (kosher): (02) 673-0000
– Hotline for advice and assistance from the ELEM Association: (03) 647-7898
– MEITAL – Israeli Center for Treatment of Child Victims of Sexual Abuse: (02) 633-3387/61, Sun-Thurs 8 a.m.-3 p.m.
– El-Sawar center for Arab women: (04) 853-3044